Berakhot 58

The right words of comfort.

This daf introduces blessings for witnessing unique events — including upon seeing crowds, kings, scholars, elephants, comets and ruined houses.

The sages taught: One who sees the houses of Israel in ruins recites: Blessed are You, God, the true Judge.

From there, the Gemara launches into a story about when Ulla and Rav Hisda came across Rav Hana bar Hanilai’s house in ruins. Here is an abbreviated version:

Rav Hisda groaned and sighed. 

Ulla asked him: Why are you sighing? Didn’t Rav say: “Sighing breaks half of one’s body?” And Rabbi Yochanan said “even the whole body.”

Rav Hisda said to Ulla: How can I not sigh? This house — where there were sixty cooks who would cook for anyone in need, which had four doors open in all four directions, and anyone who entered hungry left satiated — has fallen in ruins. 

Ulla said: Just as in the future God will restore Mount Zion to its inhabited state, so too, in the future God will restore the houses of the righteous to their inhabited state.

Seeing that Rav Hisda’s mind was not settled, Ulla said to him: It is enough for a servant to be like his master.

When a person is confronted with a tragic sight, the Gemara prescribes the response, “Blessed are you, God, the true Judge,” bringing to mind God’s omnipotence and control. This sense of God’s transcendence may comfort, or may feel distant and isolating. Strikingly, in the above story Rav Hisda does not say this blessing at all.

Instead, Rav Hisda’s reaction is to sigh and groan. His colleague Ulla seems uncomfortable with his distress, and offers three successive responses: Grief isn’t good for you; God has a plan, it will all be ok in the end; at least you are like God who also suffered the destruction of a house (meaning the Temple). After the first two — both attempts to allay Rav Hisda’s grief — Ulla sees that Rav Hisda’s “mind is not settled” and he does not feel better. Ulla’s third approach, saying that Rav Hisda’s suffering is like that of God, simply affirms Rav Hisda’s grief. It echoes a deep-seated Jewish idea that God suffers with us (for example, Isaiah 63:9 or Jeremiah 13:17 as read by the rabbis in Chagigah 5b).

In the big and small losses of our lives, may we comfort each other with affirmation and companionship. And when our attempts to connect and support each other don’t land, may we reach out and try, and try again.

Read all of Berakhot 58 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 1, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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